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Why Do Small Dogs Live Longer Than Big Dogs?


Calling all dog owners - University of Washington's Dog Aging Project would like to study your dog - big dogs, small dogs, city dogs, country dogs, top dogs, hot dogs. They want to understand how dogs age.

Their findings could help identify ways to keep our pets healthy longer. Daniel Promislow is a professor of pathology and biology at the University of Washington and part of the Dog Aging Project. Actually, you're probably not part of the project. You probably run it, right? You're not an aging dog.


SIMON: So he joins us from KUOW in Seattle. Thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL PROMISLOW: It's a pleasure to be here. And I'm one of many people who are running the Dog Aging Project.

SIMON: What do you folks hope to learn?

PROMISLOW: We're trying to create the largest long-term study of aging in dogs that anyone has ever done, with the goal of trying to understand how genes and environment determine healthy aging in dogs.

SIMON: So it's not just that old rule of thumb that one year is seven years in a dog's life?

PROMISLOW: On average, that's true. One of the amazing things about dogs, though, is that there's tremendous variation. If you go to the dog park, you'll see large dogs and small dogs. They also vary tremendously in their lifespan. And we're trying to understand why they vary so much.

SIMON: Big dogs, I'm told, live shorter lives than small dogs.

PROMISLOW: And that's unusual because if you compare different species of mammals, from elephants to mice, it's the large species that live longer. So dogs are doing things in reverse.

SIMON: And no indication as to why that might be yet?

PROMISLOW: That's one of the things that we're hoping to find out.

SIMON: Yeah. Look, the lives of dogs - long lives of dogs - are important in and of themselves. But I wonder if there's any implication in this research for human beings.

PROMISLOW: There's a lot that we can learn about people from studying dogs. We share about 75 percent of our genes. So what we learn about how environment and genes affects aging in dogs is likely to tell us a lot about how those same things affect aging in humans.

SIMON: So if somebody wants to make their dog a part of this study, do they (laughter) just buy them an airplane ticket, or what?

PROMISLOW: We're going to be studying dogs all over the country. We want to study dogs in wealthy homes and dogs in not-so-wealthy homes. If anybody is interested in participating, they can simply log on to dogagingproject.com.

And they can ask to have their dog enrolled in the long-term longitudinal study that we're carrying out with 10,000 dogs, as well as in the intervention studies that we're interested in doing to see if we can treat dogs with drugs and improve healthy aging.

SIMON: Will they be rigorously tested? Do you just draw blood? Do they have to - I don't know - jump over little puffy things or something?

PROMISLOW: (Laughter) We're trying to do a lot here. We want to first of all understand how it is that dogs age. If an older person goes into - to see the doctor - the geriatrician - there's some very basic things that we can do to determine how well they're aging.

We can ask them to try and stand up from a sitting position. We can measure their grip strength. We don't yet have those kinds of measures for dogs.

And then we're going to measure not just their genotype and their environment - things like air quality, water quality, their social setting - but also all the molecular biology that might help us to understand how it is that genes and environment shape aging.

SIMON: Do you have a dog, Doctor?

PROMISLOW: I have a dog. I had two dogs until last year.

SIMON: Oh, I'm sorry.

PROMISLOW: Our 11-year-old Weimaraner passed away. By 11, he was pretty geriatric. I have an 11-year-old mutt. And when I take her to the dog park, people think she's a puppy. She looks like a 1-year-old. And she's still very vigorous.

SIMON: Oh, that's wonderful. Daniel Promislow with the Dog Aging Project at the University of Washington, thanks so much for being with us - and long life to your dog.

PROMISLOW: Thank you. It was a pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.